After making 46 starts through his three year career entering his senior season, Ute center Jason Washburn was a lock to start for the entirety of his senior season.
For the Utes' first two games of the season, that logic rang true. However, by game three, head coach Larry Krystkowiak surprised just about everyone, starting sophomore transfer Dallin Bachynski. While Bachynski put together two great performances in games one and two with 20 points and 17 rebounds combined versus Washburn's 20 points and nine rebounds, but with eight turnovers.
Although the points weren't far off comparatively, the two performances didn't really stack up, especially after factoring in Washburn's turnovers.
When questioned by media on the topic Krystkowiak was adamant about one point. "I wouldn't read too much into [starting Bachynski and bringing Washburn off the bench].It's not always the best five guys that start," Krystkowiak explained. "You're looking for match-ups and sometimes the best combination of players, so I wouldn't make that into anything more than us just trying to play with some rosters."
At the time, the comment didn't clarify much, especially as Bachynski continued to get the start in the next eight games, up to and including Utah's last, a home victory over SMU Tuesday night.
In that game, Washburn scored ten points, had six rebounds, three blocks and no turnovers, capping off a resurgence in his game over the course of the last four games.
In that span, Washburn averaged 12.5 points per game and 6.25 rebounds. Very early in the season, a strong contribution from Washburn has equated to a 4-0 record for the Utes when he scores at least 10 points and pulls down six rebounds.
"Just because I'm not starting doesn't mean that the expectations for me have changed," Washburn said.
Losing a starting job as a senior is a tough pill to swallow, but Washburn has accepted it, if not embraced it.
"It really wasn't difficult for me. It really wasn't. I had a meeting with Coach [Tommy] Connor, and he told me I had a problem starting the way you need to," Washburn recalled. "He told me that they had to take me out, and put me back in for my mind to be in it. So I think they sat up in the office and thought 'let's give that a try' and they did. So far it's paying off."
In the very beginning however, it didn't appear to be paying off, as Washburn had another four game streak, which was far less illustrious than his current one. Over that stretch, Washburn averaged 4.25 points per game and 3.7 rebounds per game, suggesting that perhaps an adjustment had to be made.
"Starting is a mind-set. I used to depend on the energy that starting gives you. I used the crowd and my teammates to kind of jump-start me but I don't have that anymore," he observed. "So I had to change that mind-set and find a way to generate that off the bench. It's just a little bit different, but I am still feeding off my teammates, and if they're doing well on the court. Mostly I just have to get my mind ready, like I want to get out there and be aggressive right out of the gate. So maybe that took some time for me."
While some mental adjustments were made, Washburn's attitude needed none. This development isn't really new, considering all of the ups and downs Washburn has endured throughout his four years in the program. Through player drama and turnover and subsequent coaching turnover and turmoil, Washburn, along with fellow senior and center David Foster have remained steadfast in doing whatever the program asked.
After investing so personally for so long, and getting little in return, Washburn's positive response to a perceived demotion comes as no surprise.
"It seems like I had two paths. I could have come in and been a cancer in the locker room and complained, or I could go with it and support Dallin [Bachynski], who has tremendous upside and potential. My initial thought was that I wasn't going to be angry," he explained. "I just had to go that path because that's who I am. My first thought was that I'm not going to be angry. I'm still playing over 20 minutes a game, so that reaction wouldn't make any sense to me."
Another big key for Washburn is his supporting staff, whom he was quick to credit.
"I feel like some pressure is lifted because last year, I probably had to score 20 points for us to have a chance. Now I have guys around me who can play, and honestly we don't need that from me anymore," he credited. "I've got guys who can pick me up on an off night, or take some of the load. Because we have another healthy big whose effective, I don't have to conserve energy all game. I can come out of the gate aggressive, leave it all out there, and then get a rest which is kind of nice."
As a senior, and a big, naturally Washburn has aspirations to play at the next level as almost any senior would, however, when asked what he hopes to accomplish during his senior season, his answer was surprising. And it did not include the NBA.
"Get Utah a winning season. That really is my personal goal, that and go on to a post-season tournament. That's all I want this year, because the expectations for me and my class were so high," Washburn exclaimed without hesitation. "You can't put it lightly, you can't put it any other way:we've been a let-down. It's been a let-down. I just want to help my team and go into the conference tournament and win some games, then go on to a post-season tournament."
With a good season, Washburn has an opportunity to reach the 1,000 point benchmark, having scored 767 career points through last Tuesday's win over SMU. With 20 games remaining, not including any conference tournament or post-season games, Washburn must average 11.65 points per game to hit the impressive mark. Currently Washburn averages 8.7 points per game, which, if continued, would leave him short of 1,000 points.
Ironically, unless Utah does achieve its goal of winning games in the Pac-12 tournament and getting an invite to one of the post-season tournaments, Washburn will have difficulty hitting 1,000 points. Not surprisingly,Washburn's personal and team goals go hand in hand as one event doesn't occur without the other.
Washburn is currently 233 points shy of 1,000 career points, which would be an accomplishment for any collegiate basketball player. While he wouldn't shun the accomplishment, it's not his ultimate goal, or focus.
"I would love to get to the next level, and to do that you have to have a good senior season. Sure, I would love to hit 1,000 points for my career," Washburn said. "But if those things don't happen for me, and we win, I'm fine with that. I'd rather win than worry about myself or records, or anything like that. I just want to give Utah a winning season, and go out in my senior year knowing that we did that."